*Ranchi's Firayalal Chowk in the evening.
STUDYING AT ST.JOHN’S HIGH SCHOOL , RANCHI ( AULD LANG SYNE!)
Any discussion about childhood cannot be complete without touching upon the school-life.
Most parents were not as ambitious or obsessed as they are to-day about the education of their children. Still it was generally realised that a good education was an important vehicle for upward social mobility cutting across the economic stratification under which many chafed.
I studied in a very well-known local school of its time called St. John’s High School located at Purulia Road by the side of the famous St. Xavier’s College with no separating boundary wall then. It had been established way back in the year 1887 by the Catholic Jesuit priests . Indeed , students from St. John’s almost as a matter of course joined St. Xavier’s College after passing out of the school as most of the students were able to obtain very good marks in the school-leaving examination and were able to meet the latter’s exacting standard for admission .The school has since shifted to another location. It was generally recognised as possibly the best school in Ranchi and we as students were thought of as a cut above the rest.
To-day when I recall , I find that my joining of this school was more incidental rather than planned. I had a maternal aunt (‘Phuea’ as we called her) who was a child-widow and a very pious lady to whom I was particularly close. Her house and ours were attached as a remanant of the structurally disintegrating joint- family which was still emotionally bound and in many respects not exactly separate. I was standing by her side in the morning as a small child while she was cooking. Suddenly she realised that I had to appear at the entrance examination of St. John’s High School . To waste no further time lest we should be late for the Test, she splashed clean her hand in the water kept in a bucket by her side for cooking, and we hurriedly got ready and were off to school. We can easily contrast the aforesaid situation with the type of preparation that is gone into in a family to equip the child for such an examination. I do not recall what I wrote in the examination but I got selected.
Later on, I found that my father whose posting was outside Ranchi in a public sector undertaking and who used to come home almost every fortnight, telling with pride several of his friends and acquaintances as to how I had passed the entrance test and was now studying at St. John’s .Hence, getting admission and being a student of this school must have been a feat of sorts.
We realise the importance of our alma mater when we are studying. We do so more when we have left the same .Indeed the dictionary meaning of the Latin word ‘alma mater’ is a “nourishing mother”. Thus, school or college provides intellectual and other nourishments to its students preparing them for the travails of life later.
The huge red building of St. John’s School at Purulia Road was constructed more in the typical red-coloured mould of the Victorian heavy architecture with hallowed tall arched entries and very high ceilings. The same added self-confident solidity to its presence, with an overall impact of inspiring awe and a sense of pride in those associated with it.
Further, with the Jesuit priests at the helms, the school had rather Spartan austere ethos focussed on education in a no-nonsense way! It was a place of learning and that indeed what it was. That is how it was also perceived by both parents and students. Run by the Jesuit priests –several of whom were from the Western world particularly Belgium-it had an overall puritanical streak which in a sense looked compatible with the similar values of a small quaint town that Ranchi was, mainly constituted of middle and lower middle class which believed in achievement while leading a simple life further forced by the financial constraints.
The town was still not exposed to the distractions provided by internet, growing luxury of the upwardly mobile middle class and increasing consumerism. Leading a simple life within the financial constraints was the consensual dominant value -system of the town. The society still had its clear do’s and don’ts with overall emphasis on conformism which subsequently got eroded substantially with greater spatial mobility ,more proliferation of education including that of girls, sharp increase in employment and resultant independence ,growing consumerism ,T.V. and social media bringing in exposure of the outside world right into the drawing –room and an overall emphasis on highly assertive individualism. Social non-conformism gradually replaced the earlier culture of conformism and began to be widely accepted.
However, during our childhood excessive pursuit of pleasure or being too fashionable or being too ostentatious or being a squanderer of money or behaving lightly before the elders usually attracted social disapproval. Age was often unquestionably respected and the elders behaved with a greater sense of conscious gravity and propriety maintaining certain distance with the children in regard to various family and social matters.
Of course, with the passage of time families have become more filocentric with Age getting relatively relegated behind in importance. But this is the part of evolution of society from one matrix to the other with each succeeding generation arguably thinking of itself better than the preceding one .
Indeed, I am reminded of the interesting observation of the poet Alexander Pope made more than two hundred years ago possibly when pitted against similar issues of generational changes:
“We think of our fathers fools, so wise we grow.
Our wiser sons, no doubt will think us so.”
Education was deemed to be the only source of upward social mobility and extra-curricular was really ’extra’. Parents still did not aspire to make their children a Sachin Tendulkar or an Aamir Khan or some other celebrity preferably all rolled into one , away from the studies.
A student was supposed to primarily concentrate on studies. Other activities like sports, etc., were important but were generally deemed to be secondary and supplementary to the primary one of pursuit of education. In a place like Ranchi hardly anyone aspired to build up a career through “extra-curricular” activities. It was generally not possible. The variety in the career opportunities which is available to-day was also not there! Most of us had to get into the stereotypes of job opportunities like those of, say , manager, engineer or doctor and a few more .
As stated, an overwhelming emphasis was on education and our school particularly for its time seemed to follow a strict regime .Frequent class tests were conducted to keep the children on their toes and inculcate in them the habit of regular rather than ‘seasonal’ study. During those days most schools did not follow such routine and rigour of frequent class tests.
Instead of going into the mundane details, I would like to confine myself to some of the abiding impressions that I am still left with about the school!
One of the days that I fondly remember is the School-Day celebrated probably sometime in August of every year. This was the day on which the school had been founded. One of the reasons for my fondness was the kite-flying that the students participated in. Since childhood I had a great liking for kite-flying and I would go to the school with my kites .Kite-flying was done in the very large ground that the school had on its backside.
The day was also remembered for its “Lucky-Dip”. We students used to buy tickets with the fond hope of winning item/s in the lucky- dip .Virtual computer games were obviously not there and we were more content with the rather simpler childhood games of Ludo ,Chinese -Chequer, Carrom –boards ,Chess and so on. As the school on the whole had a middle-class and lower-middle class social milieu, the lucky-dip tickets were not costly.
A ticket came for something like twenty paise or so and correspondingly the items given in lucky-draw were also not costly .The best draw used to be a bicycle and the entire school would envy the boy who would get that as the first prize. For our generation of that time, owning a bicycle as a student was like owning a high-end car to-day. Indeed by the yardstick of the present-day post-liberalisation generation, the middle class of our childhood may possibly be deemed as the lower middle class of to-day .For instance, to-day even ordinary fitters and plumbers move around in motor-cycles which was quite a luxury for the middle class of our childhood.
Coming back to the Lucky-draw, as a child somehow every year I eagerly looked forward to being lucky and winning at least one prize. One could always buy an item from a shop but getting the same in a Lucky –draw would be something special. However, although I studied in the school for about eight years till Matriculation, each year I was disappointed by the fact that I got nothing. This I suppose gradually changed my perception towards luck .I came to the conclusion that I should never rely on luck which might evade me. Hence, I always prepared very hard and from my side tried never to leave any matter to chance both during my school days and later on in professional life . Of course, now that I look back in retrospect as a person mellowed with age, I cannot help thinking that there were occasions when God (if that is what ‘Luck’ is) had been extra kind. On other occasions it worked the other way for no explicable reason.
Childhood is often associated with innocence and unalloyed joy. However,children still seem to have an impish sense of humour. Emanating from the same, the students of the class had a tendency to name quite a few of their class-mates with rather awkward sobriquets based on some chance incident or look or mere fancy. Most teachers-good, bad or indifferent-had also been given such sobriquets which only the students shared in their conversation with much playful mirth with teachers usually being unaware of the same.
St. John’s had extra-curricular activities. But then, extra-curricular was ‘extra-curricular’ only .To-day there are many unconventional opportunities for livelihood and growth-singing, dancing, sports and so, as a result of which these lines have also attained respectability now . Children including their parents see career opportunities in them. It was not so when we were growing up.
Hence, while the school provided opportunities for sports like athleticism, cricket ,football or even for a few years during our time dramas were staged , on the whole these were not deemed to provide serious career opportunities and were part of extra-curricular meant for diversion and some rounding of personality but the core emphasis was always on the studies. For the common family with limited wherewithal to take financial risk, education was the surest and safest vehicle for the upward social mobility thereby often meaning a decent stable job. . Schools like St. John’s played a very useful role in attaining that objective and provided springboard for better higher studies.
One aspect which strikes a jarring and unpleasant note in my memory is related to the harsh corporal punishment which was meted out very liberally in the name of instilling discipline. It goes against the present day sensibilities.
However, it was still a world which suffered from a misplaced belief in the Victorian saying of “Spare the rod and spoil the child “! Ironically enough, in keeping with the aforesaid prevalent philosophy, such punishments were accepted tamely by the parents and students alike as something normal and no one protested .The students bore the same in great pain and abject humiliation. For instance, corporal punishments like being asked to kneel -down, contorting the body to stand like a rooster or canning were very common. We cannot think of similar punishments practised in schools to-day without attracting serious opprobrium .The type of punishment meted out depended on the severity of indiscipline as perceived by the teacher and also on his passing mood.
A very large number of students would go on to do quite well at studies and landing up with respectable jobs. My own experience based on interaction later in professional life with some of the erstwhile students of our school St. John’s was that on the whole we had grown into focussed and disciplined adults with better moral moorings. I would like to attribute in large measure growth of these personality traits to our grooming in the school. What we learn and imbibe at an early age when we still have a receptive temperament and are malleable, shape our personality the most as we go forward in life.
The overall social milieu of the school was middle class with a large section of lower middle class and down right poor. Of course, some came with richer background .Thus, the school did not have elitist culture and most of us imbibed the middle class values of hard work and utilitarian simplicity which I suppose many of us carried through our adult life even when we earned better and could have indulged in luxurious frivolities.
As students we never encountered any situation which would make us conscious of our social identity in the school. Basically the way we grew up, we were completely oblivious of the same. This buttressed our sense of social cosmopolitanism that Ranchi as a town provided. Being in the political backwaters as it were, Ranchi still had an element of political innocence, indeed political naivete being largely secluded from the identity politics as seen in many parts of India.
Our school which had a rather puritanical streak tended to indulge in moral ‘transgression’, if one may say so, in one matter, which surprises and bemuses me in retrospect. The school had the practice of showing films on most Thursdays which happened to be a half-day for us .The films either in English or Hindi could be a documentary, comedy like that of Laurel and Hardy or some popular social Bollywood film. Most students looked forward to the same.
This practice of showing films was at a time when possibly arising out of the Victorian prudery, watching popular Bollywood films by children was still a taboo and refrained from. Such films were supposed to be rather ’lascivious‘ by the moral standard of those days and were widely thought to have a deleterious effect on the character of a child! Indeed, it was not uncommon for some students to give a slip to school and land up in film –halls.
As for myself, the Thursdays on which the school failed to show movies, very often I almost as a matter of habit would go to a film -hall which existed close to my house. It was not a prominent hall and most of Dara Singh films were screened there. For a child it was tolerated to watch a Dara Singh film because he had been a well –known wrestler who played roles befitting this background rather than that of a romantic hero. Hence, he was not expected to have ‘polluting’ effect on a child. Having said that, his films still had romantic scenes and songs but in keeping with his image he had to maintain greater restraint and could not be jumping around or oozing sentiments like the usual romantic heroes! It all sounds so funny to-day .But then thinking changes with each succeeding generation!